Two NASAastronauts will make a bit of history next month when they become the firstfemale spacecraft commanders to lead their orbital missions at the same time.
Veteranspaceflyers Pamela Melroy and Peggy Whitson will lead a jointconstruction mission to the International Space Station (ISS) next month. Melroywill command the space shuttle Discovery's STS-120 flight to the ISS, where herseven-astronaut crew and Whitson'sExpedition 16 team aboard the outpost will install a new orbital node.
"I'mactually very excited about it," Whitson said in an interview.
Whitson, anaccomplished biochemist and soon-to-be first female space station commander,said she and Melroy have flown together in the past. The spaceflyers last metin orbit during NASA's STS-112 station assembly mission in 2002, but back thenMelroy served as a shuttle pilot and Whitson an Expedition5 flight engineer.
"So itwill be fun to sort of rejoin again on orbit, this time with slightly differentroles," said Whitson, 47, who will launch to the ISS Oct. 10 aboard aRussian Soyuz spacecraft.
Melroy, atwo-time shuttle pilot, and her crew are due to launch toward the ISS on Oct.23 and dock at the ISS two days later.
"I confessthat I really look forward to that first handshake across that hatch,"Melroy said of her plans to note the female spaceflight first. "That'll beall the commemoration that I need is a picture of that."
The jointshuttle-ISS crew will install the new Harmonyconnecting node to serve as a foundation for future internationallaboratories. The astronauts will also move the station's Port 6 solar arraysegment from its mast-like central perch to the outpost's left-most edge.
"It isa complicated mission," Melroy, 45, told SPACE.com."Essentially, we've got two large pieces of the station that we're doingassembly operations with, and that's pretty unusual."
A colonelin the U.S. Air Force, Melroy is the second female shuttle commander and the onlyone currently on active duty. Eileen Collins,NASA's first woman shuttle pilot and commander, retired from the agency lastyear.
Melroy doesnot expect another female astronaut to command a shuttle mission by NASA'splanned 2010 retirement of its three-orbiter fleet.
"Ithink it's pretty unlikely, actually, because we don't have anybody in thepilot queue who is a woman test pilot," Melroy said. "But I?m hopefulfor the future. I think this may be the first time two women commanders fly inspace, but I'm sure it won't be the last."
Melroy andWhitson agreed that persistence is key for any young women hoping to joinNASA's astronaut corps or the military. Whitson, a Beaconsfield, Iowa, nativewith a doctorate in biochemistry, said she applied to be an astronaut for 10years straight before finally being accepted.
"Iwould certainly encourage young people to pursue their dreams," Whitsonsaid. "It isn't always an easy path, but it's worth going after. And I figureif a farmer's daughter from Iowa can become an astronaut, you can be just aboutanything you want to be."
- SPACE.com Video Interplayer: NASA's STS-118 Shuttle Mission
- IMAGES: Endeavour's STS-118 Launch to the ISS
- Complete Space Shuttle Mission Coverage